A Breast Cancer Q&A: What is It and Am I at Risk?

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Throughout the month, Summit will provide information about breast cancer, risk factors, treatments, and preventative care in an easy-to-follow Q&A format.

The best defense against breast cancer is early detection. For additional information about Summit's breast cancer screening tests or to schedule a mammogram, visit us online or call 865-588-8005.

Q: What is Breast Cancer?

Answer: Breast cancer is a disease in which cells in the breast grow out of control. There are different kinds of breast cancer, depending on which cells in the breast turn into cancer. Breast cancer can begin in different parts of the breast. A breast is made up of three main parts: lobules, ducts, and connective tissue. The lobules are the glands that produce milk. The ducts are tubes that carry milk to the nipple. The connective tissue (which consists of fibrous and fatty tissue) surrounds and holds everything together. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts or lobules. Breast cancer can spread outside the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels. When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is said to have metastasized.

Q: What are the Symptoms?

Answer: Different people have different symptoms of breast cancer. Some people do not have any signs or symptoms at all.

Warning signs of breast cancer may include:

  • A new lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast
  • Pain in any area of the breast

It is important to not that these symptoms can happen with other conditions that are not cancer. If you have any of these signs or other symptoms that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.

Q: Does a Lump in My Breast Mean Cancer?

Answer: Not necessarily. Many conditions can cause lumps in the breast — including cancer. But most breast lumps are caused by other medical conditions. The two most common causes of breast lumps are fibrocystic breast condition and cysts. Fibrocystic condition causes non-cancerous changes in the breast that can make them lumpy, tender, and sore. Cysts are small fluid-filled sacs that can also develop in the breast.

Q: What Are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?

Answer: Studies have shown that your risk for breast cancer is due to a combination of factors. The main factors that influence your risk include being a woman and getting older. While breast cancer can happen at any age, most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older.

Some women will get breast cancer even without any other risk factors that they know of. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get the disease, and not all risk factors have the same effect. Most women have some risk factors, but most women do not get breast cancer. If you have breast cancer risk factors, there are ways you can lower your risk, including getting screened for breast cancer. We will talk about that shortly.

Risk Factors You Cannot Change

  • Getting older. The risk for breast cancer increases with age; most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.
  • Genetic mutations. Inherited changes (mutations) to certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women who have inherited these genetic changes are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
  • Reproductive history. Early menstrual periods before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 expose women to hormones longer, raising their risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Having dense breasts. Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can sometimes make it hard to see tumors on a mammogram. Women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer. Summit Medical Group's 3D mammography technology is particularly beneficial for women with dense breasts because the multiple, higher-quality images make it much easier for doctors to spot abnormalities than traditional mammography.
  • Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases. Women who have had breast cancer are more likely to get breast cancer a second time. Some non-cancerous breast diseases such as atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ are associated with a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Family history of breast or ovarian cancer. A woman's risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mother, sister, or daughter (first-degree relative) or multiple family members on either her mother's or father's side of the family who have had breast or ovarian cancer. Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman's risk.
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy. Women who had radiation therapy to the chest or breasts (for instance, treatment of Hodgkin's lymphoma) before age 30 have a higher risk of getting breast cancer later in life.
  • Women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was given to some pregnant women in the United States between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, have a higher risk. Women whose mothers took DES while pregnant with them are also at risk.

Risk Factors You Can Change

  • Not being physically active. Women who are not physically active have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Being overweight or obese after menopause. Older women who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of getting breast cancer than those at a normal weight.
  • Taking hormones. Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (those that include both estrogen and progesterone) taken during menopause can raise risk for breast cancer when taken for more than five years. Certain oral contraceptives (birth control pills) also have been found to raise breast cancer risk.
  • Reproductive history. Having the first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy can raise breast cancer risk.
  • Drinking alcohol. Studies show that a woman's risk for breast cancer increases with the more alcohol she drinks.

Research suggests that other factors such as smoking, being exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer, and changes in other hormones due to night shift working also may increase breast cancer risk.

Q: What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk?

Answer: Many factors over the course of a lifetime can influence your breast cancer risk. You can't change some factors, such as getting older or your family history, but you can help lower your risk of breast cancer by taking care of your health in the following ways:

  • Keep a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Don't drink alcohol, or limit alcoholic drinks.
  • If you are taking, or have been told to take, hormone replacement or oral contraceptives (birth control pills), ask your doctor about the risks and find out if it is right for you.
  • Breastfeed your children, if possible.
  • If you have a family history of breast cancer or inherited changes in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, talk to your doctor about other ways to lower your risk.

Staying healthy throughout your life will lower your risk of developing cancer, and improve your chances of surviving cancer if it occurs.

In our next blog, we will discuss preventative care, including the various types of breast cancer screening tests and recommendations.